Opioid Abuse and Seniors


If you think the opioid epidemic is only affecting younger folks, think again. According to a report in Psychiatric Times, while opioid use disorders are more common in younger patients, “prevalence among the elderly is growing, and misuse poses unique risks in the geriatric population.”

The informational web guide Addiction Center concurs. “Drug and alcohol abuse among the elderly is a rapidly growing health problem in the United States.” Adding, “Seventeen percent of people in the United States over 65 years old have abused prescription medications, according to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.”

The Center on Addiction states, “A growing number of older Americans are becoming addicted to prescription opioid drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin. While drug-related deaths have increased dramatically in all age groups, the greatest percentage increase has been among adults ages fifty-five to sixty-four.”

So, what can we do to protect our loved ones and ourselves from falling victim to this epidemic? We can start by acquainting ourselves with potential triggers for addiction in our senior population. These include:

  • Retirement
  • Loss of income or financial difficulties
  • Death of a spouse, family member, close friend, or pet
  • Divorce
  • Empty nest
  • Family conflict
  • Relocation or placement in a nursing home
  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Mental or physical health decline, which can include depression, memory loss, and major surgeries
  • Chronic pain–eight in ten seniors struggle with heart disease, diabetes, and/or arthritis

Many of the above-mentioned life changes can lead to an increase in prescription drug abuse. Loss of loved ones may cause some persons to feel socially isolated. This can make them turn to addictive substances as self-medication becomes a way to deal with difficult feelings and emotions.


Foster awareness

We need to both be self-aware and cognizant of changes in our loved ones’ behavior that could reflect opioid misuse.

This can include memory problems, changes in mood, variations in eating and sleeping habits, unexplained bruises and/or chronic pain, failure to bathe, and disinterest in family and usual activities.

The Center on Addiction points out, “It is common for health care professionals to overlook the potential for addiction in their older patients.” Additionally, “Opioids still tend to be over-prescribed in this age group.”

Seniors need to understand that, as we age, we metabolize alcohol and drugs at a slower rate. Because older patients are likely to be prescribed multiple pain relievers, the severity of side effects caused by opioids is increased. Consequently, seniors are at an increased risk of developing addiction after a shorter period of time than their younger counterparts.

US News quotes Dr. Stuart Gitlow, former president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, who says the proportional risk of addiction is constant for adults. The difference lies in individual response. While most people will feel some nausea and physical discomfort after taking an opiate drug, “about 20 percent of the population will say, ‘Oh, that feels amazing.’”

He continues, “Those are the people we worry about. And you’re just as likely to run across those twenty percent in older age as you are in younger age.” That adds up to a significant risk, considering sixty-five million Americans are sixty or older.

New guidelines say, for most patients, that these drugs should be used for short periods, and only to ease acute pain. However, there are seniors who have been prescribed these drugs for decades, such as people working in jobs that can create chronic back pain.

Seniors with age-related conditions, like arthritis, can also fall victim to opioid overreliance.


Warning signs

No one is immune; addiction can happen to the best of us. Here are a few things to consider:

Symptoms of addiction can mimic signs of aging, and prescription opioids can cause dependence and addiction. Because signs of a substance use disorder are viewed similarly to dementia or delirium, recognizing an addiction in senior citizens can be challenging.  

Pay attention to what is being consumed. Seniors may be taking opioids along with sedatives and could stop breathing from the combination. The chance of suffering falls, broken bones, and cognitive impairment increases with opioid use.

Mixing drugs with alcohol and pot (the number one illicit drug older adults are using) can be a deadly combination.

Well-intentioned friends may be sharing drugs when they have leftover pills. That’s never a good idea.

Take medicines only as prescribed.

If a senior is suffering from drug abuse, seek expert help.

Shame should never prevent anyone from seeking treatment. Addiction is not a failure.

Medical professionals, caretakers, and family members should not ignore anyone who has developed an addiction to any substance. Sobriety may be difficult, but life with addiction is much harder.  


Judith A. Rucki is a public relations consultant and freelance writer. Readers may contact her via the editor at wswearingen@buffalospree.com with ideas for making the golden years sparkle, sizzle, and shine.




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